We shall sing on that beautiful shore,
The melodious songs of the blessed…
In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore”
– S.F. Bennett
The Bounty feast is done for another year. A group of Island youngsters sit on the ground in the golden sunlight, singing and strumming on ukuleles and a resonator guitar. They laugh and make music together as the shadows lengthen and families head for home. Whenever friends and relatives meet on Norfolk: around an aged piano, on the ‘randa, at picnics or by a campfire – you’ll hear this kind of ‘dirt music’. Old-fashioned, acoustic stuff – banged out on guitars, ukes, home-made instruments and even the spoons, where everybody sings along to well-loved favourites, pop songs and folk classics.
This tradition of ‘entertaining yourself’ was part of growing up in many remote communities and Island elders remember the past clearly: “We had radio…”, jokes Roy Nobbs (81), “but all you could get was static.” His friend, ‘Wiggy’ Knapton (79), agrees and explains that in the 1930s and ‘40s most people looked forward to musical evenings on a Saturday because, after working hard all week, they could finally relax, socialise and enjoy themselves. Alex Nobbs (82), Roy’s brother, recalls singing hymns and war-time tunes at such gatherings and, in those dark years, with neighbours and loved ones far away and fighting overseas, music became especially important. Songs gave them hope, lifted their spirits, and reminded everyone of happier days.
Dick Nobbs, Roy and Alex’s father, played the button accordion while their mother, Sylvia ‘Girlie’ Nobbs (nee Robinson), played piano – as did her mother, Jemima Robinson. With their brothers Ken and ‘Short’, and the rest of their siblings, they were encouraged to enjoy music from earliest childhood. Wiggy’s grandpa, Julius Christian, was a fine tenor singer, and Wiggy has fond memories of nights around the piano with his family and the Nobbs boys. Surrounded by music at home, and in church, they all sang and eventually taught themselves to play instruments by ear. Alex learnt piano, organ and ukulele, Roy took up harmonica and later the uke, Ken also learnt piano, Short liked accordion and Wiggy played, and later made, a tea-chest bass.
This was not uncommon at the time – every family on the Island, it seems, had their own little group of musicians who could be relied upon for impromptu concerts, dances and sing-songs. Foxy McCoy and his brothers, Jackie Ralph, Greg and ‘Kik’ Quintal, Eileen Snell, ‘Steggles’ LeCren and a host of other locals entertained their friends and relations. Even today, many older Islanders can play at least a few hymns and tunes on the piano. Weddings, funerals and birthdays all required music so, in the era before proper radio, television and the internet, home-grown performers were very important. Records were available; but bringing them to Norfolk was not a quick and easy process, so live bands and solo artists flourished.
Cut off, to some extent, from the outside world Islanders honed their musical skills and had plenty of time, and opportunity, to practise and improve. Some were talented composers who wrote songs about Norfolk’s beauty; and these became local crowd pleasers. Regular dances at Rawson Hall and live music in popular clubs and venues, such as Kingston’s Paradise Hotel – which stood in the area opposite the Golf Club – allowed the next generation to carry on the tradition of music-making. Kim Davies, George Smith, Shane McCoy, ‘Smudgie’ Cooper, ‘Pendo’ Pendleton, Lee Irvine, ‘Toofie’ and Trent Christian, and scores more, kept the Island singing and swinging into the modern era.
Annual Country Music, Jazz and Ukulele Festivals, and the latest crop of singers and entertainers in Norfolk’s cafés and bars, have also kept the spirit of ‘dirt music’ alive. You hear this music at funerals, the Sunday Markets and the school. People sing and play for special events like Bounty Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and in their homes and churches. Some meet friends for regular musical evenings, others perform at Island Fish Frys or enjoy informal jam sessions at parties. In summer, Islanders camp down at Emily Bay, and you sometimes hear their late-night choirs – plaintive voices raised in song – drifting out from the pines.
Wiggy Knapton, Short, Alex, Roy and Ken Nobbs performed at dances, concerts and other events, all over Norfolk, for many years. Wiggy and the band, known as the ‘Widgets’, also combined with musos like Don Christian-Reynolds and Richard ‘Uckoo’ Douran to entertain people. Sadly, Ken and Short have now passed away but their legacy continues. Barb Elliott, Ken’s partner, was always impressed by Ken’s willingness to play piano for anyone who asked – and this sharing of music is very important to Roy and Alex too.
Every Saturday I join the Nobbs boys, and Vonnie Grube, as they entertain the hospital residents with an afternoon concert which always includes such Norfolk favourites as, You are my Sunshine, In the Sweet By and By and Pearly Shells. Hearing music, for those who are ill in hospital, can be a key to their memories – the words and melodies seem to connect them to another time. In fact, medical therapists now believe music taps into a deeper and more mysterious part of our brain. Recovering stroke victims, and the elderly, will respond to well-known songs even when they struggle with speech or memory. Watching the brothers, performing so cheerfully for patients, it’s clear their passion for music has not diminished.
In recent years Roy and Alex have performed for the Bounty Ball, Carols by Candlelight, church services, the Norfolk Language Camp, and Tahitian-style dancers. They’ve inspired their children, nieces and nephews to take up music and now proudly encourage some of their grandchildren – Arki, Brianna and Dakota – to play and sing with them. Roy has also written songs about Norfolk, joined the ukulele band, and learnt how to make Island ukes from pine and other beautiful timbers. His handsome, and lovingly hand-crafted, instruments are highly prized by collectors and musicians. He and Alex continue to get together with Wiggy, play the odd gig, and share their music with everyone.
With all the distractions of modern life it is wonderful to be with family and friends and simply make music and, standing at the cemetery with Islanders, on Bounty Day, it’s heartening to join in as they sing:
We shall sing on that beautiful shore,
The melodious songs of the blessed,
And our spirits shall sorrow no more,
Not a sigh for the blessing of rest.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 02 Issue 02, 2018. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.